Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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September 23rd, 2009

Engaging the Bright Boys and Bright Girls

Narrative

In his review of Laurent Contet’s award-winning film The Class, Roger Ebert writes “A school year begins with the teacher as top dog. Whether it ends that way is the test of a good teacher. Do you stay on top with strict discipline? With humor? By becoming the students’ friend? Will they sense your strategy?”

One of the challenges any teacher faces comes from the brightest students in class. Teachers must ensure that most students understand the material, which often leaves the brightest bored. They will often express their boredom by challenging the teacher’s intellectual authority. How does the teacher respond?

The movie Stand and Deliver presents an instance where the teacher, math instructor Jaime Escalante, responds successfully. Escalante quickly spots the class leader, Angel (played by Lou Diamond Phillips), demonstrates that math is worth knowing and that he knows more of it, and then cuts a deal with him. Escalante gives Angel an extra text book to keep at home, so that he will never be seen to be so uncool as to carry a text book, in exchange for which Angel will do the work and thus lead by example.

In The Class, the main challenge to teacher Francois Marin’s authority comes from Esmerelda (played by Esmerelda Ouertani). Esmerelda knows her grammar well and is bored by the readings Marin assigns. Marin is unnecessarily provocative, for example when Esmerelda says that she often goes to Galleries Lafayette, he expresses surprise that she ever ventures outside her own neighborhood, the definitely unchic 20th arrondissement.

Esmerelda’s most threatening moment comes when she participates as student rep in a faculty meeting to assess the students’ progress, and then promptly reports all Marin’s critical comments to the students. In response, he criticizes her – in the classroom – for behaving like a skank. This accusation got under her skin. In the last session of class, when Marin asked the students what they had learned during the year, Esmerelda answered that she learned nothing from the books he assigned, but that she had read The Republic. After demonstrating – in response to his questions – that she really had read it, she proudly announced that it wasn’t a skank’s book.

Clearly, the relationship between Marin and Esmerelda was a troubled one, with each pushing the other’s buttons. How should a teacher respond to an Esmerelda?

The standard response would be some sort of enriched curriculum. Some public school systems have magnet schools or enriched programs for their Esmereldas (e.g. Bronx Science in New York or Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto). If they had the means, the parents of an Esmerelda might send her to an academically enriched private school such as University of Toronto Schools. In The Class, these options don’t seem to have been available, so Marin would have had to take it upon himself to do the extra work of designing a personalized curriculum for Esmerelda and monitoring her progress.

The additional material on the DVD tells us that the students participated in an acting workshop. Furthermore, the student who played Esmerelda – Esmerelda Ouertani – used her own name and told us that she really wasn’t acting because the character Esmerelda was exactly the person she is. So we have a paradox here. The real Esmerelda Oeuertani found enrichment in her education by portraying an Esmerelda Ouertani who was bored by the curriculum.

I close on a personal note. Looking back at myself during high school, I see quite a bit of Esmerelda in me. I recall that in Grade 12 I got 73 out of 75 on a history exam and, when the teacher was discussing the exam, I was reading a newspaper. The teacher kicked me out of class for a week. This penalty made it clear that he was offended, but it certainly didn’t engage me. To this day, I remember the penalty, but I don’t at all remember the teacher.

September 17th, 2009

Sherlock Holmes and Narrative Point-of-View

Narrative

While the omniscient author was the standard point of view for nineteenth century novels, one notable exception was Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories about the detective extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes. As anyone who has read them knows, the narrator is Holmes’s assistant Doctor Watson.

The stories were written to create suspense, as the great freelance detective wrestles with cases that baffle both the police and any person of reasonable intelligence. Near the end of each story, Holmes ultimately takes decisive (and often risky) action that cracks the case. In the denouement, Holmes explains to Watson (“you know my methods, Watson, it’s elementary”) how, based on his extraordinary powers of observation, association, and deduction, he came to his solution.

Watson thus serves as a proxy for the reader, who is assumed to be as baffled as Watson, and who thus receives Holmes’s explanation with gratitude.

There were two other narrative structures Doyle could have used, namely Holmes’s first-person narrative or the omniscient narrator.

First person narrative would have destroyed the suspense, because Holmes would have been explaining his thought process as he went along, thus solving the case in the middle of the story for himself, rather than solving it for the reader at the end. Furthermore, Holmes inevitably would have been calling attention to his own intelligence, thus appearing insufferably conceited and hence unappealing to the reader. Superior intelligence is a more appealing trait when it is observed by others than proclaimed by the savant himself.

An omniscient narrator would have been a better choice. The narrator could have maintained suspense by keeping the revelations to the denouement, say with Holmes explaining his thinking to his professional colleagues at Scotland Yard or by writing it up in a diary. But telling the story from the point of view of an omniscient narrator would have called attention to the fictional nature of the stories as the product of Doyle’s authorial intelligence.

By establishing a dialogue between Holmes, the guru, and Watson, the thoughtful follower, Doyle, wisely, put himself completely in the background. The stories thus establish a seamless narrative experience in which the reader can readily immerse himself/herself. And that is why, to Doyle’s chagrin, when he decided to kill off Holmes, his bereaved audience demanded that he be resurrected.

September 10th, 2009

The (Borins) Boys of Summer

Uncategorized

Summer is almost over, but I will take a break from my usual topics and themes to look back on what has been a highlight of this summer: my two sons’ discovery, and my rediscovery, of baseball. The Borins boys are nine and six, ideal ages for picking up a new sport.

Our turn to baseball was multi-faceted.

First, we got gloves, a bat, and a softball, and we started practicing, either at a nearby baseball diamond or on the lawn. I was pitching at a distance of about 20 feet. We were also playing catch, and I would throw grounders, fly balls, and line drives. It was wonderful watching the boys learning how to connect with a pitch, or how to position themselves to catch a fly ball. As I was both pitcher and fielder, they often blasted the ball past me, but I occasionally had the thrill of catching a hot line drive at twenty feet. (“Dad, you’re cheating!”)

Second, we started watching baseball games. This has been a miserable year for the Jays, so we’ve experienced our share of frustration. The worst was a game that my younger son and I attended, where the Jays were leading the Devil Rays 9-1 in the seventh and ended up losing 10-9. Still, we have occasionally seen the Jays win convincingly (for example 14-8 over the Yankees last Sunday) and have watched many well-executed plays.

Third, we’ve been reading about the history of the game and talking about its complex rules and the strategies that coaches use. There is a wealth of books for children, as well as visual material, such as Ken Burns series for PBS. The history of baseball, of course, mirrors the social history of America. The life stories of Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson are metaphors for the Black experience, just as those of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax speak to the Jewish experience.

For a child to make sense of the rules and practices of baseball is a tremendous mental exercise; baseball really is the sport of intellectuals. So I have been busy explaining sacrifice bunts, relief pitcher substitution, why lefties don’t play in the infield, and how an unassisted triple play could happen. And, as luck would have it, baseball experienced one of only fifteen unassisted triple plays in its history this summer. We’ve also begun to get into the statistics of batting averages, earned run averages, and on-base percentages. And while we’ve read a book recounting Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, I haven’t yet tried to demonstrate Stephen Jay Gould’s proof that it never should have happened in the first place.

What are we now looking forward to? At this point, we’d like to see the Jays put out of their misery and the playoffs begin. We will happily shift our loyalties to more successful representatives of the American League East, likely the Yankees but possibly Boston.
And, for next year, as the boys get bigger and stronger, I hope that – if they want – they will outgrow their dad’s version of sandlot ball and get involved in games with their friends or perhaps in Little League. We hope to delve deeper into baseball history, strategy, and statistics.

And, finally, for the Blue Jays – our home team – there is always next year.

August 27th, 2009

Narrative

After viewing “The Class” last week, I read Francois Begaudeau’s book “The Class,” on which the movie was based, this week. Two big differences emerge between the movie and the book.

The book is very loosely structured, in essence a set of Begaudeau’s vignettes and reflections on a year of teaching grammar and composition to his eighth grade class. It lacks a strong plot-line. Movies need a strong plot-line, and the vignettes were adopted and rearranged to create one. His confrontation with the two student representatives at the evaluation meetings occurs early in the book (p. 75 to be sure) and nothing more is heard of it. In the movie, however, that confrontation is elevated to the key turning point in the plot.

By the way, the derogatory term Begaudeau used to describe the student representatives’ behaviour was “petasses,” which appears to be most accurately translated by the word “skank,” which has a distinct connotation of sexual promiscuity. The women, not surprisingly, were insulted and offended by his choice of words.

The second difference between the book and the movie is point of view. The book is written in the first person and very clearly represents Begaudeau’s point of view. Thus we have his perceptions of and reactions to his students. He has a privileged opportunity to explain himself. Despite his idiosyncrasies, the reader is quite likely to finish reading feeling sympathetically towards Begaudeau.

The movie is more impartial. The camera observes the action from the students’ viewpoint just as much as from Begaudeau’s. So we often see Begaudeau as he is seen by his students. In addition, the students, too, have physical presence, energy, and attractiveness. From their viewpoint, as I reported last week, Begaudeau doesn’t seem so heroic.

Reading the book and watching the movie side-by-side is a good reminder of the differences between the two media and the influence these differences have on how we perceive narratives presented on both.

I’ll be taking next week off – one last week in the country before Labour Day and, to use the French term for it, la rentree. Au revoir le 10 septembre.

August 19th, 2009

Narrative

French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s highly praised film “The Class (Entre Les Murs)” has finally been released on DVD. I think the film deserves high marks for its effective use of cinema verite style and demonstration of the complexity of the relationship between teacher and student.

In an interview with Dennis Lim in the New York Times on Sept. 21, 2008, Cantet said “I don’t want to make a version of